Every now and then my eye is drawn skywards by a black cross in the sky usually moving in a south-westerly direction, roughly following the course of the River Avon. Through my binoculars I can see it is a cormorant, a bird widely despised by many who see it as an aggressive predator, a decimator of fish stocks, a beast of a bird, with a personality as dark as its profile.
Cormorants are usually associated with coastal areas, where they nest on crevices in large flocks, but they are also common inland. They’re an untidy bird, a bad neighbour, with a quarrelsome temperament, and some antediluvian habits. Their feathers lack the oil that most waterbirds have to keep them waterproof and warm, so cormorants, and their close relatives the inelegantly named Shags, have to hang their feathers out to dry by standing as if crucified against the wind. It’s a throwback to the days before birds had fully evolved. These are the rednecks of the bird world, backwoods conservatives, avian anachronisms, still practicing age-old traditions that work just fine for them.
Though the birds can be said to lack charm, it’s hard to justify their dreadful reputation. The Bible, for example, presents it, alongside the Bittern, as a symbol of desolation and despair. If it’s hard on the cormorant, it seems doubly so on the poor old Bittern, now a rare and protected species.
But like most things, seen in a different light the birds acquire their own set of virtues. If you’re lucky enough to see one close up on a sunny day their feathers will seem translucent, deep, deep shades of green and blue, not black at all. Underwater they are masters of their environment.
Cormorants have a long history of involvement with humans, not always to mutual benefit. Until 1950 there was a bounty on their heads the south west England, and elsewhere they have been the subject of attacks with weapons ranging from flamethrowers to laser guns!
In China and Japan they have been domesticated for centuries and are still used to catch fish, and for a while were so here by James I and Charles I. The usual method is to fix a ring around the base of the bird’s throat so that when it dives on a long leash it can’t swallow, and so returns the fish to its master. In some parts, as a reward the birds are allowed to keep every seventh fish. Some reports suggest that they learn to count and will refuse to fish until they are paid their wages.
There’s not much chance of taming a native cormorant. So spare a thought for its Oriental cousin. I rather like this poem, by Basho, written in the 17th century. Basho is regarded as the greatest composer of haiku, a tiny poetic form that aims to capture the essence of an experience in a few deftly chosen words. This one hints at the complex relationship between people and these wily birds
but then so sad
cormorant fishing boat
Image 1: Ross G Strachan Flickr Creative Commons
Images 2 & 3: Image 3 http://www.chinatravel.com/facts/fishing-with-cormorants-in-china.htm
Image 4: Paul Weeks Flickr Creative Commons